Achaiya woke up with a start, the lamp glowing by his side and the pitch darkness outside baffled him. He broke into a cold sweat remembering this dream, a very bad dream. Annam, his Annam was crouched in the corner of a dark room. Her face was all wrinkled, body shriveled and eyes mere hollows. Her parched lips were uttering "water", "water" in a feeble voice. That was when Achaiya woke. He paced the room with swift steps, suck by a whirlwind of emotions. Something was not right. Only God knew what was to befall him and Annam...
|Royal Courtyard- Thirumalai Naik Mahal, Madurai|
Chokkanatha Naik was conducting his Royal Court in his grandfather Thirumalai Naik's Grand Durbar Hall, seated in his exquisite throne and garbed in silk and pearls. His eyes though, were dreamy...The image that kept playing in his mind- the image of a slender woman charging at him with a sword mounted on a black stallion. As he caught a glimpse of Achaiya among the Courtesans, he waved his hands- " disperse". Achaiya was summoned to the Grand Durbar today and he was blissfully unaware of Chokkanatha's dreams. He had seen Chokkanatha daydreaming throughout the entire proceedings today and was wondering why. Only when the two were alone in the Durbar Hall did he get a chance to confront his friend. " What is the matter with you, Chokka? You look all starry eyed and dreamy! Who is the damsel this time?", he asked with a wink. Chokkanatha eased himself on the throne, staring at the motifs on the ceiling and replied with a boyish grin- " Should i tell you how much i am in love with her? You know me better, Achaiya. I just can't get my mind away from her. Sadly, i don't know who she is or what her name is. All i know is, i cannot live without her!"
Achaiya was wondering whom Chokkanatha was fancying. His Harem already boasted of a dozen women and each of his affair started the same way, same precision! "May i know who she is, Chokka?" probed Achaiya with a crooked grin. " Ah! That spitfire who raised her sword against me! Achaiya, do you know who she is? I would die without her", Chokkanatha went on rambling, unfazed by the expressions in Achaiya's face. Achaiya felt the world spinning, his world...His dream had probably meant this, after all. Taking few long breaths, steadying himself, Achaiya cleared his throat to cut short the rambling of the King. " But Chokka, i don't find her interesting. What woman can that be, that raises her sword against the Naik King? We should not trust her", he replied. Chokkanatha let out a short laugh and said- " That deftness in swordfight is what is needed of my women" he thundered.
His conviction was frightening Achaiya and worry took over his being. " I hear she is the daughter of General Tupakula Lingama Naik, Chokka. I wonder if your Royal Family will approve of marrying a commoner", he said in a feeble voice. Chokkanatha's face broke into a wide grin. " Is she Lingama Naik's daughter? What is her name? Tell me all that you know of her, friend", he asked questions with unwavering steadfastness. Achaiya stammered and said- " She is Annam..Annamuthamma, Chokka. I have heard she is well versed in sword fight, intelligent and very pious". Without hesitation, Chokkanatha summoned the Royal Guards and sent word that he wanted to meet Lingama Naik- immediately. That gave Achaiya some time to assess the situation, which was turning from bad to worse.
It turned a disaster when Lingama Naik turned up immediately with a salute to the King. What happened then around Achaiya was a nightmare come true. The General was more than happy that his daughter's hand was being asked by the King himself. Grinning from ear to ear and carrying a huge bounty laden with pearls, sapphires and diamond jewels for his daughter from the King, Lingama left the Durbar Hall. Achaiya could not remember what he told Chokka later and moved away as swiftly his legs could carry him. He had to think, fast. And act, faster.
As his horse took him to his through the streets of Madurai, Achaiya kept thinking. How could he fight against the King for Annam? And if she did marry Achaiya, a local chieftain, what kind of life lay in store for her. And if she married the King and lived as a Queen...Ah...his Annam, the Queen...Shaking his head, Achaiya was again lost in deep thought. When it grew pitch dark, he had come to a decision, a strong one. He checked the reins of his horse and started in a gallop, whizzing past the gates of Madurai Fort.
At the same time, Annam was waiting for Achaiya in their favorite haunt. Tears welling up in her jet black eyes, she expected to see Achaiya and fly into his arms the moment he came in sight. Her father Lingama had made it very clear- she HAD to marry the King or the whole family would be shamed. "You know how Chokkanatha takes failures, don't you?", he had asked her. She too knew well his antics. If she refused to marry him, Chokkanatha Naik knew how to tag her along, using her father as his pawn. Floored...she thought with disdain. Achaiya was nowhere to be seen. She grew impatient as the night grew darker. She had to return home. Collecting tiny pebbles along the pond, she threw them one by one in the moonlit waters, watching them make patterns on the water surface. No, she would not marry the King...Achaiya would sure find a way to pull her out of all the trouble.
Few days later...
The Madurai Palace was wearing a festive look with yellow marigold garlands being hung on doorways and jasmine flowers adorning the archways. Chokkanatha Naik, all dressed up and beaming, was wedded to the doe-eyed Annam who was renamed Mangamma by the Royal Purohit and Ministers. There were festivities in the whole city, people drinking and chatting away merrily. Chokkanatha was all eyes for his new capture- Mangamma. Annam still hoped Achaiya would come one day and haul her up his horse and alone they would run away to a far off land. All empty dreams...When Chokkanatha came to her chamber that night, Annam felt her fate was sealed. She was dumbfounded when he proclaimed happily- " I have sent an emissary asking for Princess Malarkodi's hand in marriage to Thanjavur's King. Till then, you can feel yourself free in this Chamber of Queens". Mangamma felt the earth slipping by under her feet.
TO BE CONTINUED...